“Exactly What You Should Have Done”

When I wasn’t sad and whining about the Saturday morning cartoon reruns or the peas getting too close to my macaroni and cheese, I wonder if I was a pretty cute kid. At least, there’s this one picture of me; I think it was the summer after kindergarten, and my family couldn’t afford those team soccer pictures, so my dad took me out to the middle of the field after a game one hot Saturday and had me pose in between the goalposts with a soccer ball. I’m wearing this jersey that is way too big, sleeves drooping, soccer shorts cinched up tight at the waist, and two long brown pigtails. It’s an awkward picture, but I’m smiling. My hand rests on my very own soccer ball.

pretty cute, right?

I can’t remember, though, if that was before or after my epic assist during one of our matches. It’s pretty much the only game I remember from that season. Somehow, I’d freed myself from the herd of kids chasing the kids who were chasing the ball, and there it was, the ball, right in front of me. I was just feet from the team’s goal, the goalie hunched down, staring me down, ready to dive down and block my decidedly weak six-year-old shot. I took a deep breath and made the decision. I looked out of the corner of my eye. I pulled my foot to the side.

I passed the ball.

I kicked it sideways across the goal to the star of our team, the son of the coach, the kid who was a year older and had been playing soccer since he was a “little” kid. He took the pass, and with one strong and graceful motion kicked it right past the goalie and into the net. And my team went nuts. It was 1–0, the winning goal. The end of the game. The coach raced onto the field, surely to congratulate his son, high five, pat on the back, way to go. But he didn’t. He ran towards me, his eyes huge; I remember the smell of the tobacco on his breath as he picked me up and looked right into my eyes. His eyebrows arched high making lines into his forehead, he’s shaking me a little too hard, and he said, “You did the right thing! That was the right thing! That is exactly what you should have done!”

That is exactly what I should have done. I was surprised and elated and proud. I didn’t score the goal. But I did the right thing. As the weaker, klutzy, inexperienced tiny little girl face-to-face with that goalie, I made the pass, a split decision based on insecurity, and a lack of skill, and the fear of failure. I earned the assist. I was a helper. I passed it over. After all, we all need an assist in our lives, right? And I got to be the one to fill the role.

But I also wonder what I lost that day. I wonder where all that praise for doing exactly the right thing got me.

Can a good thing still fail us? Can doing the right thing still leave its mark?

I didn’t square my shoulders. I didn’t line up my shot. I didn’t remember what I’d been practicing every Wednesday night for the last six weeks. I didn’t look that goalie in the eye. I didn’t pull my foot back, gathering up the energy and then letting it go wild, an untamed release, foot crashing against the ball with power, determination, a certain amount of recklessness. I didn’t take the chance.

I wonder now, if that was it. Was that the moment when I let it go? When I stopped writing stories in my journals because I didn’t want to make a mistake and ruin the paper. When I stopped jumping into the cold pool all at once, feeling the shock and sudden rush of water all around me. Was that when I kept my paints in their clean containers, brushes smooth and straight, play doh colors separated like peas and macaroni? When I stopped jumping in puddles and climbing the trees and digging my hands deep into the soil. When I stopped coming home too late for dinner smelling like wild onions. Was that when my tears welled up at every admonition, when Sister Bernadine wrote my name on the board for the first time for talking during announcements, and when my greatest fear was to get my times tables wrong in front of the whole class? When I thought that the risk of getting in trouble was never worth the risk of disillusion, displeasure, permanently withdrawn love. When “I’m so disappointed in you” from my parents was a fate worse than death. When, one day, I’d choose death instead.

Was that where it all began? In the overwhelming enthusiasm and excitement of a moment that made me proud, that thrilled me to my core? That moment of doing the right thing, exactly the very right thing.

I got the assist. Rewarded for not taking the chance. Praised for not choosing risk, adventure, challenge, chance, failure. I did exactly the right thing and I got the assist and I’ve never let myself be wrong or unpredictable or fully present whenever a challenge came along since. Get the assist. It’s exactly what I should have done. What I should always do.

Run the second fastest mile on the track team. Be the cute boys’ chummy little sister. Get a B- in French because I refused to participate in class, the hyper-critical audience for all my incorrect conjugations. Be the friend after the break up. Hide myself in oversize t-shirts and youth group plans and bible verses. Give my life to Christ one night at an evangelical summer camp so he can take the wheel. Move over. Get in the passenger seat.

I can be the assist in my own life.

I can be the assist in my search for security and self-esteem. Don’t step into the unknown, where my heart is tugging me, where the risk is immense. Where I might surprise myself with what I might be capable of. Where I might be surprised at the resilience of love. Surprised by how happy I might let myself be. Stick to the assist. Pass the ball. Be ready for the race back to defend my goal after someone else takes all the chances for themselves. Pass it over. Cut off the impulse to go for the goal alone. Or to let someone else be my assist. I’ll let them down. I may miss. I might get blocked. I may disappoint the team. Be the assist. It’s better that way. No risk. No challenge. No withdrawal of love after I took my chance and lost. Just make the pass. It’s exactly what I should have done.